Shepaug Valley School to reopen planetarium to give students, public ‘better access of the universe’

WASHINGTON — Litchfield County residents who are interested in learning about stars and planets will soon not have to travel far to do so — Shepaug Valley School is reopening its planetarium.

The planetarium, which will have a January unveiling, will be open to students in Region 12 — which serves students from Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington — as well as the public at large. All programs offered will be free.

Programs will include topics such as the birth of a star, the sun, the different solar systems and black holes.

The planetarium, which can hold 30 to 40 people per showing, is located in the center of what the district refers to as Shepaug Valley School’s “mall.”

It originally opened in 1972. However, it stopped functioning in the late 1990s due to very costly equipment needed to operate it.

“When it came down to budgets and pricing, the old devices that were used...it’s so different today with the technology that’s available and enhancements that exist,” Region School District 12 Superintendent Megan Bennett said. “Now, since things are so digitized, it seems a very appropriate time to bring this back.”

The work to bring the planetarium back to life involves painting and getting new furniture and technology.

Region 12 is partnering with Digistar, a company based out of Utah, to ensure it has all the equipment for the planetarium. Digistar has a series of lessons from which the district can choose to incorporate into its existing curriculum.

The planetarium will enable Shepaug students to have “a richer experience when they’re learning about the universe, and to create a submersive experience,” Bennett said.

Additionally, there will be public shows, class trips and after school activities for students of all grade levels.

“It will allow people to have better access of the universe — right within our hallways,” Bennett said. “We recognize the need to bring the public back into our buildings as we slowly reemerge from COVID.”

The main expense of the planetarium involves just that of the hardware itself, Bennett said. The cost of the repairs is $108,000, which was paid for in the 2020-21 budget.

“Since the district wasn’t able to go on field trips last year due to COVID-19, we were able to parlay that line item to purchasing the Digistar equipment,” Bennett said. “This works out because now we can have field trips in-house and we don’t have to worry about some of the things that COVID takes away from us. We’re creating the opportunities right on campus now.”

To operate the planetarium, the district will be working with a Washington-based program called Slooh, which offers live, online telescope feeds of astronomical events.

“We’ve partnered with Mike (Paolucci, Slooh’s CEO and founder) so that our students will be having access to the different telescopes,” Bennett said. “Mike and I are figuring out if we can link up some of the telescopes so that way there is an immersive experience right within our planetarium.”

Shepaug Valley School’s media communications specialist will coordinate the regular running of the planetarium, once it opens.

Region 12 will notify the public of the dates of its planetarium programs on its website, region-12.org.

The planetarium will be a vehicle in which students can become interested and curious “in what the world is beyond our own,” Bennett said. “It’s been this treasure that’s been hidden in storage.”

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